Animals

I’ve heard many people speak highly of Emma Jane Unsworth, therefore I was very interested to watch Animals, an adaptation of her classic 2014 novel, also written by her. Said to be the story of two best friends finding their way (already see the likeness to animals?) and coming to a crossroads, the book is well known for its comedic elements and strong writing – ripe material for a comedy about messy friendships and self destructive females looking for a happy ending.

Aspiring writer Laura (Holliday Grainger) has been long time friends with the creative and free Tyler (Alia Shawkat) who spend their nights gallivanting through Dublin in drug-fuelled, alcoholic riots, but spend the days “creating” and talking up their process. Things take a turn when Laura meets pianist Jim (Fra Fee) and her relationship with Tyler changes as her future begins to deviate from the life they’ve known.

Off the bat, the script for Animals is excellent. Parts that out think should play out one way, don’t, and you never feel 100% on top of it. There are moments of uncomfortable silences and delicacy in certain scenes that aligns so strongly with real life, that you can tell that the friendship is based on something real. But from a direction perspective, there lacks subtlety at times and there are times that the film glosses over parts of the story that it could have afforded to go further in on. 

The characterisations also fall short, particularly as we see Laura’s constantly stares into nothingness and Tyler is relegated to the role of the contemptuous friend and erratic force in Laura’s life. Director Sophie Hyde never finds a great sense of pace – perhaps intentional – an feels lazy at times. The beginning montage shows the vices of the women, but we never come to learn much more about them. The friendship runs its own course and we never really see the nuance or the cogs that make it tick so effortlessly. Hyde’s direction feels stylised and sometimes compromises the human element at the heart of Unsworth’s writing.

There are certainly funny moments of the film, which is where credit is due for the actresses. You can tell when they have more freedom outside of the script as both Grainger and Shawkat’s reactions and delivery stick the landing. The former really shines and the audience is immediately captivated at every turn and Shawkat is her normal hilarious self. The costuming is also fabulous and channel exactly the vibe to represent the stage the girls are in their lives. 

One of the biggest issues of Animals is that the relationship between the two girls feels so overdone by the likes of Girls, Trainwreck, Bridesmaids, etc, that it loses newness here. While at times vibrant, the film becomes dreary at times and Tyler’s spotlight dims as the film goes on. By the end, you feel like you have lived the lives of these girls twice over, and gained very little.

The Best

The acting performances here are great. Plus we get to see more of a modern Dublin that is fun and bursting with life. Unsworth’s dialogue is carefully crafted and poetic at times.

The Rest

Hyde’s direction feels uncertain and doesn’t do the script justice. Pacing is a big problem throughout and you can’t help but feel like there’s more to be said. The three false endings at the conclusion show that the film is also overlong and lacks a strong conclusion.

Brittany Runs A Marathon

Every star needs its vehicle and Jillian Bell runs a marathon performance (and more) in Brittany Runs A Marathon, her breakout film and one of the best crowd-pleasers of the year. Based on a friend of writer/director Paul Downs Colaizzo, the eponymous “Brittany” who decides to run the New York City Marathon, the story stars Jillian Bell as a 27 year old New Yorker who can’t get her life together. In an Amy Schumer sort of way montage, we see her binge drink into an oblivion and make lots of questionable life choices. Deciding to visit a local doctor to get some prescription meds for recreational use, she is struck by reality; she is very unhealthy and will continue to deteriorate if she doesn’t try to lose some weight. After divulging her news to her neighbour Katherine (Michaela Watkins), she is convinced to take up running, which inevitably turns into full on training for the marathon.

It’s a new road for Brittany and leads her to a range of new challenges and experiences that change her outlook. She begins to re-evaluate her friendship with narcissist Instagrammer Gretchen (Alice Lee), she befriends a funny and kind gay father of two Seth (Micah Stock) and begins house-sitting for a wealthy family alongside a loveable troublemaker Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar). He’s equally as lost as she is, but we see their relationship slowly blossom through fights and romantic moments. It’s at this point that Brittany begins to lose weight – yes, but also we see that her life has changed and her outlook is completely different.

Brittany Runs A Marathon is brave in its approach to fitness and healthy lifestyles. It never seeks to mock or fat shame Brittany. In fact her weight loss is not even a core aspect of the film. There is no concept of an ideal weight, but rather Brittany’s transformation is more about self improvement and gaining a new lease on life. Bell shows this through her acting, particularly in the early scenes where she begins running – you can feel every moment of excruciating pain. Colaizzo’s direction also makes you feel the same, as if you too might be running for the first time.  It’s not an inspiration story with a few brand endorsements, ultimately selling exercise as the “cure to fatness”. Brittany taking up running is not the story, but a conduit to change in her life.

Bell, seemingly a veteran to comedy with Office Christmas Party and Rough Night behind her, shines here and walks a fine line between comedy and drama. The transformation the audience sees is subtle and without high drama. This is a real person with real problems, not an overplayed archetype of a brash New York woman. Bell plays Brittany’s insecurity well and with the sort of trepidation that one has when exploring a new lifestyle.

The film does come across formulaic which may lessen the emotion the story evokes and while the happy ending does come to celebrate the achievement of the main character, it doesn’t gloss over the ugly parts either. It feels like both a personal film but a universal one, which is why it succeeds.

The Best

Brittany Runs A Marathon and into unexpected territory with a script that is funny and also emotionally affecting. Bell is excellent and shows off her acting chops here. Brilliant.

The Rest

There are silly moments and the story follows a formulaic pattern, leaning into conformity at times. 

Blinded By The Light

This year seems to be a big for jukebox musicals in the form of Rocketman, Yesterday and now, Blinded By The Light. Based on the life of British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha takes the story of a British-Pakistani boy in the 1980s who becomes inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen, and turns it into one of the most heartwarming films of the year in the process.

Set in Luton, England in 1987, Javed (Viveik Kalra) is a son of Pakistani immigrants who writes but can’t seem to find his place in the world. He is crushed by his father’s expectations of him and doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of his peers. That is until he discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen and suddenly finds his own circumstances aligned with the songs of “The Boss”. There’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’, there’s ‘Born To Run’ and a host of other classics that become an obsession of Javed’s. He begins to  position his life with Bruce’s, and soon he embodies a braver and confident personality, going so far as to date a non-Pakistani girl in his class, Eliza (Nell Williams). It’s like with the music of Springsteen, Javed puts on the Spiderman suit that makes him become the man he always wanted to be.

Blinded By The Light is a good film. Though at times the story comes across as too earnest and lacks the tiny bit of cynicism that makes you feel like you’re watching an “adult” movie, for the most part the film works exactly because you can feel the energy rushing through Javed when he hears the songs. It leads to the film’s highest points that see him pursuing his crush, fighting back against racists and standing up for himself. It’s sincere with a dash of cringe, but it’s the right kind of sweet that makes it perfect for a release at this time of year.

Chadha has a lot to live up to, and fortunately this is a strong return to form. It echoes the coming of age films that used to inspire generations of people to follow their dreams and change their lives. Chadha also does the right thing by the music of Springsteen, really exemplifying the lyrics and drawing out the themes that younger audiences aren’t familiar with, but also juxtaposing it perfectly with Javed’s life. It’s a strong connection that energises life into the story, particularly as it also plays out against the backdrop of 1980’s England with Thatcher in power and the National front marching in Luton. Viveik Kalra finds his breakout role in this film and really shines. His ability to charm the audience and act with sincerity carries the film entirely. All supporting actors are equally as capable, though the screenwriting verges on stereotype at times.

It feels flatter and less satisfying than the narrative arc of Bend It Like Beckham, and at times goes for the broad laughs, rather than digging into the nuances of both Springsteen’s music and the reality of being an immigrant in Thatcher’s England. It’s on the nose at times, or relies too much in Springsteen’s music to provide the emotion that a scene should have by itself. The music is big and positive, life changing almost, and you can see this conveyed on screen. If it only had a bit more bite and grit to make it feel truly real.

The Best

The soundtrack is excellent and story carries  both the themes and power of Springsteen’s music. It’s an empowering film and it’s hard to leave the cinema without a smile.

The Rest

It’s a bit too sweet at times and a bit overlong. But sure to convert even the biggest haters of The Boss.

Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood

For a filmmaker who wears his influences like a badge of honour, Quentin Tarantino had never made a film solely about the medium that shaped him. Granted film and television have always been part of his characters, signs of personality through how they absorbed the pop culture, and in Inglorious Basterds he fantasized on the liberating potential of cinema, powerful enough to kill Hitler. So it’s fitting that his new one, Once Upon A tTime… In Hollywood, his 9th and, supposedly, antepenultimate film, takes the action back to a time that has always lived in the director’s logic, to say a thing or two about the value of story. You write about what you love, and Tarantino loves nothing more than a good tale, wherever it comes from.

Set in 1969, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood blends real life characters with the fictitious that Tarantino creates to serve as conduit for his argument. The make-believe players are Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his trusted stuntman-cum-friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick lives off the laurels of his time as TV’s biggest star back in the 50s, and the missed opportunity of a successful movie career (legend says he almost got The Great Escape). He’s not quite Steve McQueen, not even George Peppard, more like Terence Hill grade of stardom. Cliff, on the other hand, now infamous in town for his supposed involvement in the death of his wife, makes for Rick’s one-man entourage in the hopes that he’ll get called to do some stunt work. The two men are tasting the bitterness of the lack of success, the times are a-changing, hippies are transforming tinseltown, westerns are on their way out, and they haven’t even seen what Dennis Hopper is about to do to Hollywood. A producer, Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), recommends Rick to try a couple of films in Italy to get back in the game, but Rick sees the move as a step backwards – for him Hollywood can still be salvageable. 

Right next door to Rick a new couple moves in – Polish director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) with his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbit). Them of the new face of cinema, young and so hip, already grooving in the Playboy mansion, the definition of zeitgeist. Their story is famous, and the film plays it like the audience knows where this is going. So when Charles Manson (Damon Harriman) comes knocking on the door, or when Cliff accidentally stumbles in the ranch where Manson’s family lives – a group that includes Bruce Dern, Lena Dunham, Margaret Qualley, and Mikey Madison – there’s a tension that comes with the impending doom of tragedy. We don’t see much of Polanski and Tate, but enough to constantly remind us that, as we know, none of this ends well for them.

There’s a surprisingly lack of plot in this, especially for a Tarantino film. Instead each sequence is a vignette that develops one of the three main characters as they are confronted with the concept Tarantino is trying to develop. There isn’t a tangible goal for any of them, we don’t learn much about Sharon’s dreams, and even Rick and Cliff want something that they are not actively pursuing. The film is set first during a couple of days in February, and later moves to that fateful day in August, and cuts between the three characters like they are channeling this grandiose idea, the truth that Tarantino wants to shout from every frame, that every story is indispensable. In one scene Sharon is complimented for purchasing a Thomas Hardy novel, in another Rick gets emotional talking about the pulp-western novel he’s reading. Everyone, with no exception, tunes in every night to watch the serialised shows of FBI and The Green Hornet. In one heart-warming moment, Sharon sneaks to a screening of her own film, a ditzy raunchy comedy with Dean Martin called The Wrecking Crew, to enjoy the audience laughing at her character’s antics. It doesn’t matter that the film in question didn’t receive the best critical reception, it’s still a story and, therefore, just as important as the next great novel.

I know this all sounds corny, but it is Tarantino’s most romantic film. Not just a love letter to cinema, but an enduring look at our tradition to entertain ourselves. Rick and Cliff are not has-beens because their legacy is eternal, they are just suffering from the confusing pains of change.

The villains, because every film has to have one, are those who misinterpreted the medium to justify their violent sociopathic needs. So, as controversial as it was to bring the murdered wife of a still living man to the front of the action, they are there for an important dramatic reason. Mason, and the family, are exaggerated products of pop culture, the fact that they existed is terrifying, but serve an excuse for Tarantino to channel all his griefs unto them. He hates them, just as much as he hates the nazis in Basterds. They’re not glamorised, their violence isn’t justified, for they are perpetrators of the worst crime – not murder, but the misinterpretation and misuse of storytelling.

The Best

This is all Tarantino. While every actor is fantastic, the star is the filmmaker himself. For an artist with such a defined style, he still surprises with new narrative approaches and high-concept ideas. If Basterds was grandiose and cathartic, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is passionate and gentle. Still violent, and pretty much a Tarantino film, but one that is signaling the supposed end of his career, looking at what made him himself. In interviews he has said he wants to move on, after his 10th picture, to write essays about this favourite films. I’m not surprised, this one already feels like one of those.

The Rest

Another controversy came about with the portrayal of Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) who fights Cliff on the set of The Green Hornet. I didn’t find it especially tactless, or tone-deaf, like it has been accused of, but it is a surprisingly weak scene for Tarantino’s standards. Not very well written, with only the funny payoff (courtesy of the cameo from Tarantino’s collaborators Kurt Russell and Zoe Bell) sticking to landing. And yet it’s just a little smudge in what is one of the best films of the year. It’s not difficult to see why it received a standing ovation in Cannes. This is one for film lovers, but only the not cynical ones.

Booksmart

When Superbad first came out in 2007, it was an immediate favourite of mine. It presented an authentic take on male friendship, the horror of the high school experience and gave a real voice to those teenagers who weren’t the social and confident teenagers of the upper echelons from Gossip Girl, The OC, et cetera. One will think that Booksmart, Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut pays a debt to Superbad, and in so ways there are parallels, but as far as original storytelling goes, the comparisons end there.

Los Angelinos Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are two socially conscious, empowered, smart, culturally-on-the-pulse know-it-alls. From the outset it’s clear that Molly has a massive superiority complex, listening to mantras on leadership in the morning and sprinkling references of Yale University at school without mentioning the name of the college. Meanwhile Amy plans to go to Botswana to volunteer before starting college. They are both headstrong women who see value in studying and believe that they are superior to the jocks and popular girls of their school. They are book smart, having sacrificed partying for the chance to excel even more at life. But their expectations come tumbling down when they learn that even the lazy ones, the partiers and the popular kids also got into Ivy Leagues. From this they decide to live a wild night to make up for their quiet years, and naturally drama ensues.

There are lots of excellent things about Booksmart. First off, the characters feel real. Molly truly is an obnoxious and holier-than-thou figure, who’s quick wit and demeanor feels palpable through the screen. Her obsession with showing that she is now smart and fun drives most of the plot. Amy, a lesbian with the chance to pounce at her first crush, is faithful; she is earnest and still coming into her own. Other supporting characters are so fleshed out even though the film only features them occasionally, you just know people just like these.

Of course, what gives the film life is the excellent script by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman. Booksmart isn’t crass in a broad male humour sort of way. The comedy is clever and conscious, never to a fault. It’s fast, witty, feminist and perfectly balanced so you’re neither watching a skit or an after school special. Two young ladies talking about sex, in a raw, real way comes across as revolutionary, but also makes you think that these conversations do happen in real life.

Wilde succeeds as a director really taps into the highs and lows of being a teenager, it never glamourizes it nor degrades it. She shows it as it is – sometimes a triumph, sometimes a shitshow, but never comes across in a “I told you so way”, particularly in the end when the opportunity presents itself to do so. The addition of Amy’s sexuality shouldn’t feel groundbreaking but it is, and more so because she isn’t the butt of jokes for being a gay virgin. Carefully choreographed scenes of fights, parties and even a stop-motion sequence of Barbie’s are a refreshing addition to the teen film trope. Yet at no point is the story sacrificed for the visuals, and Wilde leaves scenes in your mind long after leaving the cinema.

Feldstein and Dever are superb in these breakout roles. They come at the roles the right way, knowing they are intelligent but socially lame, and that the condescension isn’t necessarily from a bad place, but a chance to reclaim their high school archetype. They have an indisputable chemistry thereby they play off one another in a sweet albeit cringe-worthy way, but it’s also a believable friendship with problems of its own. Supporting performances from Skyler Gisondo, Billie Lourd, Noah Galvin, Victoria Ruesda, Diana Silvers, and more all add to the brilliant journey, in a sort of Breakfast Club way. The film would not succeed without all their inputs.

The film is a rare gem that aims to be progressive, feminist and inclusive, and it works. No jokes have been forgone and the laughs keep coming. It has an air of independent cinema about it, likely because it stars two teenage girls whose purpose isn’t just to make boys fall for them. Lastly it flows seamlessly, emphasising Wilde’s effortlessness in her storytelling whilst also touching the heart for teenagers and older audiences alike. For this reason Booksmart is the best high school comedy of the last five years and one of the best comedies of the year.

The Best

A brilliant, sharp comedy that feels refreshing in the teen film genre. The ensemble cast shine at every minute and Bernstein and Dever soar. Wilde’s handling of the material is pitch perfect and sentimental at times without feeling too sugary. This is one memorable and relatable fare that will be remembered for many years.

The Rest

At times the touchpoints of the film feel very similar to Superbad and characterisations mirror the characters at times. But Booksmart rises above to stand on its own and even surpass it. 

The Lion King

As the third Disney remake to hit the silver screen this year after the critical failings of Dumbo and Aladdin, all eyes are on the classic “re-imagining” of the classic 1994 animated feature The Lion King. Already made into the Elton John and Tim Rice musical that has graced Broadway and the West End and beloved by fans around the world, The Lion King is renowned for its impressive storytelling – it’s loose adaptation of Hamlet – as well as its emotional moments and soaring songs. It’s safe to say it’s a staple in the Disney universe, and many would argue should not have been recreated.

For those who have somehow avoided The Lion King’s entrapment over the years, or said they had seen it when they really hadn’t, would find the story of a young lion cub Simba (Donald Glover) who runs away from his homeland after his power-hungry uncle Scar (Chitetel Ejiofor) involves him in the accidental death of his father Mufasa (James Earl Jones, returning to his role from the original). Meeting the loveable duo Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), Simba leaves his old life behind, until his childhood friend Nata (Beyonce Knowles-Carter) sees him and tries to convince him to become the lion king he was always meant to be.

When the film was optioned for a remake a few years back, in the wake of the carousel of other Disney stories to be brought into the live-action world, director Jon Favreau was tasked with the job, no doubt based off his critically acclaimed The Jungle Book in 2016. And with a line up of voices that any film studio would be jealous, there was no doubt that it would surpass the films the studio had brought to life over the past few years.

Sadly, it appears Favreau’s priorities may have been wrong in this adaptation, as The Lion King falls flat in this visually stunning but emotionally lacking portrayal. From the first scenes, it’s clear that a lot of effort has been put into the striking visuals and better than real-life depiction of the animals at Pride Rock. All the animals move with such realism and clarity that you’d be forgiven if you thought it was an animal documentary. There’s no contest that it is spectacularly gorgeous and that every frame could be a picture on a wall. But for a story like The Lion King, with its vibrant songs and dramatic sequences, without “expressions” on the faces of the animals, it feels a bit like a voice has been added to real animals – think Babe or Homeward Bound. It comes across hammy, and in addition there are times that you can’t even tell which character is talking because the lack of expression stops from understanding who is whom. Ultimately the photo-realism that was meant to enhance the cinematic experience and bring the story into the modern age, means that it loses dramatic tension and emotional soul that made the original so beloved.

For most of the film, it seems original scenes have been copied shot for shot, nullifying any idea that much has been added to the story or that more character development ensues. The film feels rushed, despite actually being 20 minutes longer, and though you can feel Favreau’s intention for the story to be a bit more dramatic, it simply doesn’t happen when the plot moves along so rapidly and scenes aren’t drawn out. Some have argued that the film is more violent than its original and it’s true; Favreau has put a lot more emphasis on the “reality” of the story insofar that comedic characters like Timon and Pumbaa aren’t really utilised in the same way the original was, and Rafiki (John Kani), the spiritual mandrill who was another comic device, is here relegated to such a small role it could have been removed entirely.

The screenplay side of things, at times scenes feel like vignettes that don’t always tie in together well or flow from one scene to another. There are many times where establishing shots are included for no reason than, it must seem, to show how visually stunning a waterfall or savannah is. For this reason, even though the film seems shorter, these overlong shots are exhausting  , particularly in the earlier part of the film where you can’t help but feel like the script is lacking inspiration. It really picks up in the third act, when the cast all come together and you can feel it a lot of effort was put in to having fun moments as well as the final confrontation at the conclusion of the film.

On the voice side of things, sad to say that character voices sometimes come across as if they existed in a vacuum. They don’t respond to one another, and don’t seem to be in conversation. Rogen and Eichner are brilliant as the comedic duo, even though their talents aren’t used to their full extent in the script, and you can actually feel a sense of rapport that you would hope from this production. Woodard and Ejiofor are both excellent, and Earl Jones is also good, but his gravitas is not as felt as before.

As for the music, Glover’s and Knowles-Carter’s voices are like warm butter melting down hot toast, bringing their talent to the myriad of fantastic sons. Seminal classics like “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?” and “Hakuna Matata” are enjoyable blips, but don’t stay with you for much longer after, because it moves along too quickly. And despite the strong vocal work in the songs, as mentioned the glee doesn’t transfer on the “expressions” of the lion or in an exciting way. It’s all a bit dull and sacrifices fun for the realism. The inclusion of original song “Spirit” feels a little out of place and should have been included over the credits.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with The Lion King, it just doesn’t feel balanced nor an electrifying cinematic experience. The beauty of the lions come to the detriment of emotion that was always at the heart of the original. In saying that there are so few laughs, so few tears and so few reactions that it at times feels like a slog that won’t end. For long time fans will be like something is missing and within a year this adaption will be forgotten. As a director Favreau heavily depends on the musical score to carry the weight of the film but both adults and children alike need to see something to feel something. And in this case, that “something” is not present in this rendition.

The Best

A world class voice cast and absolutely stunning visuals that take you to the African savannah. It’s beautifully crafted and carefully considered, still a star studded story that has a lot of live up to.

The Rest

The photo realism doesn’t allow for a range of expressions, or is designed for dramatism, and there is a distinct emotional gap because of this. It never answers why we needed this remake.

Stuber

No one likes to see a film underachieve to the point of forgetfulness. Hating one is easy, almost cathartic, it pumps blood through our veins, gives a drive, a reason to be. It’s healthy. But to see it underachieve is disappointing, as if everyone involved had taken all the right steps but, in the end, just missed a bit of magic to make it work. Stuber is that film.

Stuber starts off with a premise that I bet killed it in the elevator pitch, which is probably how it got discovered. A temporarily blind cop has to use the services of an insecure Uber driver to follow the trail of the criminal who killed his partner. Figure out for yourself who has to connect with his emotional self, and who has to man-up and stand up for what he wants.

In the very bad, extremely awful, day of the cop in question, Vic (Dave Bautista), undergoes eye surgery in what happens to be the opening day of his daughter’s (Natalie Morales) art exhibition and the day he receives word that an important drug deal involving his long term target (The Raid’s Iko Uwais) is about to go down. Added to this, he definitely needs to do this today or risk the case going to the feds, or so his superior Captain McHenry (Mira Sorvino) says.

Luckily he bumps into Stu (Kumail Nanjiani), who moonlights as an Uber driver in order to save enough money to help his best friend and crush Becca (Betty Gilpin) open a spinning gym for single-women called… Spinster. It just so happens that Becca is drunk, heartbroken, and ready to go down with Stu in a glorious night of regret, so he needs to finish his errands in time to catch her before she reconsiders. 

You see how this paragraph started interesting before I decided to add a little bit more detail to flesh out the situation, and then it was just a series of contrived dilemmas that are not as interesting or enticing as the first 25-word logline? That’s exactly the problem of Stuber, it constantly underachieves the deeper it tries to go in the plot. 

As a comedy it’s fine in measures. Nothing in it bores or offends, both Bautista and Nanjiani are proven comedians with a terrific sense of timing and character. But the script, by Tripper Clancy, doesn’t keep up with their talent. As an action film it has interesting ideas and even better intentions, but director Michael Dowse never really elevates or pushes the boundaries of the genre in the way, for example, what David Gordon Green had done in the vastly better Pineapple Express. There’s a good shootout scene in a back-alley veterinary, that worked better in concept that in execution, but it also commits the crime of using the crazy talented Uwais and not know how to direct a simple fighting sequence. The film starts with one that is so confusingly setup I was crying for a wider shot to appreciate Uwais’ movements. 

The plot progresses episodically as beat sheet demands. Not many of the characters are developed apart from the single trait they are given at the start. And if we were to stop a think for a second, it’s evident that both men could have resolved their problems with a simple phone call. Stuber could’ve gotten away with it if the rest of the action had been stupid enough to be entertaining, or dynamic enough to be exciting. But it isn’t, so it won’t take long until one thinks that we are always one smart decision away from the end credits.

I think I’m hard on Stuber because I wanted to like it. Sure the title is daft, but it’s the kind of daft that I imagine a Bautista / Nanjiani vehicle to charm me enough to get an endorsement. And in the between stoner comedies and the new genre of “adults in arrested development”, it looked like the kind of light-hearted daftness studio comedies needed to reinvent themselves. Stuber isn’t that film, not because of lack of trying, but because it just isn’t good enough.

The Best

Nanjiani and Bautista’s chemistry is so good they deserve another shot at a film together. 

The Rest

Such a fun premise executed so haphazardly. If I sound too harsh on this film is because it had all the right elements to be good, not this kind of bland mediocrity.

Parasite

Joon-ho Bong has nothing to hide. The prolific Korean director was never one to settle on a style or genre, over a thorough thematic consistency. He has done crime dramas (Memories of murder), monster movies before it was cool (The Host), dystopian sci-fi action flicks (Snowpiercer), utopian sci-fi adventure romps (Okja), thrillers (Mother), and even a comedy with his first film Barking dogs never die. I wouldn’t be surprised if his next project was a musical teen romcom, and still I would be excited to see how that would turn out to be. Terrific, I’m sure, definitely viciously alert of the shortcomings of capitalism.

Whatever the vehicle, the connecting thread in his oeuvre has always been this unapologetic lack of trust for inhumanity of the free market, progress or western society in general. This shouldn’t come as surprise, but in case there is anyone out there that has missed any point he tried to make so far, Bong delivers his most straightforward film – so caustic, so acid, so intensely anti-capitalist, it’s not even a cautionary tale. Parasite is distilled anger in celluloid.

Ki-taek’s (frequent Bong collaborator Kang-ho So) family are so poor they live in a unit literally below the bottom of society. The wi-fi is stolen from the upstairs neighbour and the only way they can control the cockroach infestation is to open the windows when the council fumigator is cleaning the streets, regardless of whether the family is inside or not. They do what they can to survive, except moan about it.

When the son, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), is offered the opportunity to tutor the daughter of a rich family, he sees a way of life so enticing he wants to invite his family in. Thus begins the plan to get every member of the family, including the mother Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang) and sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park) to work for the Park’s in any way, shape or form, so affluent they are they could support another family without even knowing it.

Neither the Park’s, nor Ki-taek’s family, are stereotypes of rich and poor, because that would be a disservice to the point Bong is driving across. Instead it’s the circumstances that led to this social gap, and the system that allowed it to happen, that is predictable – the Park’s aren’t to blame, they go about their comfortable lives unaware of the privilege they strive in, their ignorance is almost their innocence. In one meaningful scene Ki-taek finds out how the lights in corridor turn when Mr. Park (Sun-kyun Lee) arrives home, a revelation so tragic I wouldn’t dare to spoil it for anyone.

For the first half Parasite pretends to amuse its audience. Bong shoots the scenes the way his anti-heroes see them, as opportunities instead of tragic predicaments. The aforementioned fumigation scene is so dry and grotesque it’s almost a comedy, at least until you contextualise it to their brutal socio-economic situation. It’s at the half way point that Bong decides to pull the proverbial rug from under both the audience and the family’s feet. In a moment of apparent celebration, and in what could be a moment for them to take their plan several steps too far, the old housekeeper (Jeong-eun Lee) returns. What comes next may be the best written set piece of the year, so complex and unexpected I doubt even Tarantino has the chops to top this one off. 

From the moment the twist hits, the film is brutal, violent, thrilling and completely unpredictable. And as it steers towards the end, it becomes progressively darker. To reach the point of an ending so purposefully devoid of hope it was hard to face the real world for a while after it.

Parasite’s metaphors aren’t cheap but are still easy to understand. Bong is, above all, an intelligent and balanced entertainer. He adds small delicious details to each scene that may resonate later as part of the plot, or as defining moments to his characters, or as layers to the entire philosophical context. And all is wrapped in pure enjoyable entertainment. Funny, angry, brutal, cringing, not a single ounce of boredom or wasted film for a little over two hours. 

If this doesn’t sell his message, nothing will.

The Best

Joon-ho Bong has outdone himself. Parasite deservedly won the Cannes Palm d’Or against the likes of Almodóvar, Tarantino and Ken Loach. So well written, that second half alone will be dissected in the screenwriting books of the future.

The Rest

This one’s a masterpiece.

Spider-Man: Far from Home

In case you’re not paying attention, Spider-Man: Far from Home is the eighth film about the amazing webslinger in 16 years. The second chapter of the third reboot, unrelated (so far) to last December’s Spider-Man: into the spiderverse, and the conclusion to what the Marvel Cinematic Universe connoisseurs call the Infinity Saga (a whole other conversation), that had reached its emotional climax earlier this year with the behemoth that was Avengers: Endgame. So, again, in case you’re not paying attention, forget about the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb films, to catch up on this Spider-Man you have to go through a whopping 22 other films. 

But honestly, if you haven’t yet, why start now?

Because of the film’s context there will inevitably be spoilers of Endgame, so if you’re one of the ten people in the world who didn’t watch it in the cinema when it came out, you may want to skip this review. For everyone else, here goes.

Fresh off defeating Thanos with all his Avengers buddies, our friendly neighbourhood Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is facing real personal issues that only someone from the Marvel Universe could face. First, he and the other students who disappeared during Thanos’ snap (now renamed ‘blimp’) have to go back to school like nothing happened- luckily Parker’s inner circle also disappeared in the same event, including his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), high school nemesis Flash (Toni Revolori) and his crush MJ (Zendaya), so he won’t feel too left out. Secondly, Parker is dealing with grief of losing his mentor and father figure Tony Stark, and the ripple this has on the responsibility of Spider-Man as the go-to superhero.

Luckily Parker’s class is going on a school trip to Europe, so he uses this opportunity to leave his alter ego behind (suit and all) and focus on what is important for him as a confused 16-year old: ask MJ out during the trip, in a triumphant romantic gesture on top of the Eiffel Tower, before the dreamy Brad (played by Australian actor Remy Hill) gets in there first. It’s all compelling stuff and ripe material for crazy shenanigans of young American pubescent boys in Europe. Or at least it would be if this superhero thing didn’t get in the way.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) need Spider-Man’s help to join forces with a mysterious new player from another dimension. One Quentin Beck, a.k.a. Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), comes from an alternative planet Earth was that destroyed by elemental monsters who are now set to attack our version of the planet. It just so happens that the next two will appear in Europe while Peter and his buddies are there.

From that point onwards is the usual Marvel grandiose affair, but set against a backdrop of small scale stakes. Director Jon Watts, who had already done a good job with turning Spider-Man into a compelling neighbourly hero on Spider-Man: Homecoming, doubles down on giving Parker true teenager concerns, when the world around him literally explodes. The weight of the suit eludes Parker, who still sees himself as a local protector, even though he has been to space and fought intergalactic threats.

The motto “with great power comes great responsibility”, that served as the driving force of Parker’s pathos’ in the Sam Raimi trilogy, is here given a proper palpable macguffin as Tony Stark’s science gizmo glasses that he bestows to Parker on his death. A weapon so powerful even Parker himself thinks this gift had to be a rare oversight from Iron Man.

Far from Home is, according to producer and MCU mastermind Kevin Feige, the real conclusion to the entire saga that started in 2008 with Iron Man, and I can see why. The story looks at the woes of moving on, not through the prism of grief, but through the more optimistic idea of finding the way to best fit in. Parker is not Pinocchio, but he just wants to be a real boy nevertheless, and yet no one, not his family, his friends, or even the man he most admired in the world, want to let him. There’s something tragic about him that the film only tangentially addresses.

As usual it’s the villain that falls short. While thematically Parker’s journey is of value, it’s not mirrored at all by the cartoonishly humdrum baddie, which is kind of disappointing after the great run these films had with both Thanos in Endgame and Killmonger in Black Panther. And if you had some knowledge about the comics, the twist might as well had been in the trailer for this is not like the unexpected carpet pull from Iron Man 3, if you think you guessed it from the poster alone, you guessed it. And then just ties it all together – it’s fun and filled with good intentions, but you know what you expect and what you know is not large enough to be memorable.

Stay for the end of the credits, though. This one actually delivers in that department.

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The Best

The sudden charm of Spider-Man is alive and well, and now the Andrew Garfield’s films are just a passing bad memory that we’re about to forget. The big world action scenes set to small personal stakes is the right antidote to the last few bloated MCU films. It’s just a pleasure to digest.

The Rest

I’m a self-professed MCU fan. I’m invested in the character, I follow the world like it’s my second home, and I see the cinematic value of all these films. There’s nothing soulless about them, the same way that there was nothing repetitive of other Hollywood trends since the golden age. And yet I still demand from Far from Home better grasp of form over style. It falls short of a truly remarkable blockbuster, like missing the opportunity to a larger thematic cohesion that could tie the film together, and a more compelling villain. Also, what’s going on with these two Spider-Man films and the villains that are working class blokes, victims of the circumstance of an opportunistic billionaire? Is Disney cutting the crap and stop pretending they’re anything but a large neoliberal dystopia? Can they also keep Spidey out it?

Men In Black: International

Retreating once again into a formula that proved successfully exactly one time, Men In Black returns in 2019, this time global and with a – gasp – female lead in this tireless and bland retreat into the universe no one asked for. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Liam Neeson and Tessa Thompson, Men In Black: International plays off the stock standard characterisations brought to life already in the franchise by Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. Indeed in the 1990’s there was enough camp that proved for the concept of secret government agents fighting aliens to be successful and spurned a small following that certainly dwindled by the third outing in 2013 where Josh Brolin also become involved in the series.

Here Agent H (Hemsworth) and Agent High T (Neeson) fight the aliens in a flashback that lacks any intrigue, as we also see Agent M (Thompson) as a young child witnessing her first alien and seeing the powers of the Men In Black, notably the stick that removes people’s memories (am I bringing this back to you?). Now M is obsessed with the MIB and joins before being placed with H. There are a few scenes with the leader of the whole operation Agent O (Emma Thompson), particularly one that tries to challenge the gender stereotype of the department, but it largely goes amiss and is never really mentioned again. Soon H and M are placed on assignment and an international chase begins that leads them back to the events of the first flashback.

To say the story is dull is an understatement. Everything that made the franchise remotely likeable is gone here: aliens barely feature in talking roles, the script is bereft of any wit or humour and the CGI sequences are laughable to say the least. The plot walks through sequence by sequence across the world, though it never really feels authentic.

Most depressingly is the utter lack of use of both Hemsworth and Thompson’s talents. Thor: Ragnarok inspired confidence in the duo in their comedic sparring but safe to say the script and direction lack inspiration or any understanding of what made the franchise rock. The combined action and comedy is missing, and for two talented actors, there is little chemistry because of the stiff writing. Hemsworth has more chance to shine, though it is far from his recent roles. Kumail Nanjiani has a small role as Pawny, a comical alien with a handful of good lines, easily replacing the talking pug character from the earlier renditions. There’s even a scene with Rebecca Ferguson that is so forgettable, her name appearing the credits almost comes as a shock.

The film never takes off as an exciting science fiction film nor buddy comedy, and they prove no match for the original. But it also doesn’t justify its existence enough to warrant being made. It’s a slog to watch and when the end comes, you can’t help but feel unsatisfied. And I can guarantee half an hour later feeling like you have been neuralysed and forgotten the movie existed.

The Best

Glad to see Tessa Thompson headlining a film and getting some recognition as both an excellent actress and blockbuster drawcard. Also Emma Thompson’s hair is *fire emoji*

The Rest

Unexciting, unfunny script wastes the talents of everyone involved. Too much CGI, not enough authenticity and a bit of a waste of time.